For the sake of the fifty

There’s a vigorous, sometimes contentious discussion going on in the comments to this post at Dean’s World. In the post Dean takes sharp exception to those (specifically to Michelle Malkin) who are overgeneralizing in their condemnations of Islam and Muslims.

I’m not going to analyze Dean’s post closely. I think he errs in some details but I’m largely in agreement with him. I’m even more in agreement with commenter M. Simon who notes that what we’re really opposing is something that goes back much farther than the birth of Mohammed—IMO one of the things that Mohammed saw when he looked at the society around him. And, as some commenters have noted, Islam, at least as practiced, is not a monolith. There are many important divisions in Muslim societies e.g. between urban and rural practice.

The scholar Ernest Gellner made the following observation in his book Plough, Sword, and Book:

Traditional Islam possessed a high theology and organization, closer in many ways to the ideals and requirements of modernity than those of any other world religion. A strict unitarianism, a (theoretical) absence of any clergy, hence, in principle, equidistance of all believers from the deity, a strict scripturalism and stress on orderly law-observance, a sober religiosity, avoiding ecstasy and the audio-visual aids of religion—all these features seem highly congruent with an urban bourgeois life style and with commercialism. The high theology and the scholarly social elite associated with it were traditionally found in the trading towns, which were prominent in Islam. But the upper strata of commercial cities did not make up all of the Muslim world. There was also a countryside, much of it tribal rather than feudal. There, order was maintained by local groups with a very high military and political participation ratio, to use S. Andresky’s phrase. So military/political activity was not monopolized by a small stratum, but rather widely diffused. Pastoral/nomadic and mountain groups in particular had a strong communal sense and maintained their independence from the central state. Central authority effectively controlled only cities, and some more easily governable peasant areas around them.

The wholly or partly autonomous rural groups needed religious mediators and arbitrators (as did, for quite different purposes, the urban poor). Thus, quite distinct from the lawyer/theologians who defined and maintained high Islam, there was also a host of semi-organized Sufi, “maraboutic” or “dervish” religious orders and local living saints. These constituted an informal, often ecstatic, questionably orthodox unofficial clergy. It really defined popular Islam, which embraced the majority of believers. For many centuries, the two wings of Islam co-existed, often in tension, sometimes peaceably. Periodically, a (self)-reformation, a purifying movement, would temporarily reimpose the “correct”, scholarly version on the whole of society. But though the spirit be willing, the social flesh is weak: and the exigencies of social structure would soon reintroduce the spiritual brokers, mediating between human groups in the name of mediating between men and God. So, even if the formal urban Islam was “modern”, the Islam of the countryside and of the urban poor was not.

cited here. The upheaval in Muslim societies that Gellner goes on to predict is well under way and, to my untutored eye, it looks very much as though rural traditions of practice were overwhelming the urban traditions.

I have no doubt that Islam is compatible with democracy any more than I do that Christianity, particularly the tradition to which I belong with its implicit (and, frequently, explicit) endorsement of a social hierarchy, is.

But I don’t think that tribalism is compatible with democracy and (again in my uninformed opinion) there are far too many Muslims who conflate Islam with the tribalism that is older than Mohammed.

I don’t agree with Dean, however, that those who fail to distinguish between our friends and our enemies in the Muslim world are traitors. That word has a specific meaning and the lapses of those whom Dean is critiquing don’t rise to that level. But they are counter-productive.

22 comments… add one
  • Somewhat related to this issue is a recent post by thabet of Muslims under Progress blog: Flattering Muslims.

  • Nice post Dave !

  • kreiz Link

    What puzzles many of us is the unwillingness of nonviolent, moderate Muslims to condemn their radical and terrorist counterparts. There’s a reticence that’s disturbing to most Westerners. There may be a cultural or religious explanations (I have no idea), but the lack of condemnation is not something we grasp. There would be much less generalized Islamic prejudice if moderates decried terrorists and their actions.

  • What puzzles me is statements like this: “What puzzles many of us is the unwillingness of nonviolent, moderate Muslims to condemn their radical and terrorist counterparts.

    Where do you derive that from? There is plenty of near constant condemnation of al-Qaeda types in the region; although that is not extended to movements that are viewed as “resistance” movements against invaders, e.g. attacks on US forces (distinct from massacres of Iraqis) or Hezbullah.

    In short, you actually don’t know a bloody thing about the actual discourse going on, what you’re really saying is in the media you watch this isn’t reported.

    Not the same bloody thing, git.

    Now, of course, condemnation from an internal perspective is not the same as wanting to stand side by side with Westerners and do little media acts for Westerners’ consumption, above all when there is the entirely justifiable sensation that many bleating on about condemnation really have no love at all for the religion in and of itself.

  • I should note, of in addition, that there is of course a very real ‘circle the wagons and tamp down the internal criticism’ that crops up in the face of outsiders. That is at once understandable and typical human – I rather see the same thing when Americans get their hackles up about foreigners critiquing the Bush Administration.

    To naively expect otherwise is to either be a fool or a hypocrite.

    It is also true there needs to be less excuse making in the Islamic world for the radicals – condemnation comes often with the caveat, which is not without basis to be sure, that the condemer dislikes the way the US and the West screws with the Islamic world. Certainly such imagery is exagerated, at the same time, support to nasty vampire states like the Mubarek regime, etc. gives more than a dollop of credence.

    In short, should one really want to see critical dialogue, approaching the issue realistically and with a real sense of how to get communications effectively happening, rather than merely berating (this of course goes both ways), is necessary. And also not pretending knowledge when in fact one is ignorant, for I am frankly sick of seeing “where is the condemnation” talk from people who clearly know fuck all about whether there is or not.

  • There seem to be two major ideologies of Islam, and they are not Sunni and Shi’a. The Sunni/Shi’a split is theological, but the ideological split seems to be urban/rural. By and large, the Muslims whose background is urban seem to be much more moderate, tolerant, liberal than the rural Muslims, who seem to be much more tribal, and also (or should it be “thus”) more backwards socially and in their customs. The terrorists seem to largely draw from the disaffected urban Muslims for their top leadership, but almost entirely from the rural Muslims for their ideology and membership.

    The obvious exception to this would appear to be Europe, but it’s actually an exception proving the point. Those radicals in Europe tend to have come to the cities from largely rural backgrounds in North Africa. The problem of Islam today seems to me actually to be the combination of individual empowerment (note Reynold’s “Army of Davids” thesis) with an absolute refusal to accept the existence of modernity. It is that combination that both radicalizes rural Muslims and disaffected urban Muslims, and simultaneously enables them to strike back at modernity.

    Nihilism does not have the power to triumph over an optimistic people, but it can and will bring much more bloodshed before it is finally discarded.

  • I should mention, too, that when you talk to individual Muslims, they seem to be decent, caring, honorable people. But when you hear Muslims on the news or reading theological writings, it is almost always the horrid and indefensible radicals that you see and hear. I suspect that is because, in the US anyway, you only find the urban Muslims, who are more open to travel and living in other civilizations, while the rural Muslims, because of terrorism, have the loudest voice in Islam.

  • Lounsbury:
    So you’re trashing Kreiz for wondering where the condemnation is while you admit that said condemnation doesn’t often appear in the media, is often conditional, and is frequently suppressed by a circle-the-wagons mentality.

    Let me explain something to you: it isn’t enough for some Imam in the middle of Buttfukistan to drop a fatwa on Al Qaeda. Particularly when the “condemnation” is couched in terms that place the blame on Israel and the US. This is the 21st century, we have pretty good tools of communication available and in a circumstance where a billion people are being defined by the actions of a handful it seems to me that the billion could do a better job of defending their faith.

    Rather than the rightous roar of protest from a billion innocent Muslims we get a peep here and a squeak there. And yes, if you spend your day trolling the internet looking for moderate Muslim condemnations of radical Islamists you can certainly find them, but under the circumstances that is far too little noise. Nothing the moderate Muslim world has said has come anywhere close to the noise made on 9-11.

    Kreiz is right as a matter of political reality: we aren’t hearing moderate Muslims. That’s not the fault of the media, it’s the fault of moderates who refuse to raise their voices enough to make themselves heard. If a billion people want to be heard, they’ll be heard.

  • Perhaps with some of the extremists and near do wells running around, speaking out isn’t exactly a safe and viable option? Keep in mind the fate of countless reformers across the MENA. Not even beginning to consider the effects of ignorant or out of touch US and Western policy either. Remember how the moderates in Iran had the rug pulled out from under them by Bush’s axis of evil speech?

  • kreiz Link

    Perhaps I am mistaken about Islam’s universal condemnation of terrorism. I completely forgot about the avalanche of fatwas issued from Morocco to Indonesia, condemning AQ’s 9/11 attack and calling for OBL’s death. I neglected to mention the hundreds of fatwas condeming those calling for the destruction of Israel.

    I don’t doubt that there are many in the Arab Street who have no appetite for terrorism, certainly not terrorism aimed at them. But Islam’s leadership has been less than active in condemning radical Islam’s nihilism.

  • Tom Strong Link

    Tak writes:

    “If a billion people want to be heard, they’ll be heard.”

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true. As Dave and others point out, there is no Islamic monolith; it is a highly diffuse and heterogeneous religion, more akin to Protestantism than to Catholicism. There’s no centralized authority to speak for the billion; really, there’s nothing even close. The billion don’t have enough in common with each other to organize in any conceivable fashion. As with any large population, the Muslim masses are silent because majorities are usually silent. It’s the extremists who are organized enough to grab the microphone.

    Asking why the Muslim masses, as a group, don’t rise up and denounce the terrorists among them is sort of like asking why the Chinese don’t rise up and overthrow the Communist Party. Except that the latter is about a hundred times more likely than the former.

  • Tom:

    But somehow Muslim radicals manage to convey the message that they’re pissed over Danish cartoons or Papal quotations. That message gets across loud and clear. Where’s the equivalent loud demonstrations against Osama?

    You’re right of course that a billion can’t speak with one voice. But if 10,000 people went into the streets of Cairo or Isamabad and angrily denounced Osama the message would get out. If they showed, say, half the passion they show for Danish cartoons we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  • Here is something else to remember that is not frequently noted: there are about 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. That means that if only 1% of all Muslims are Islamists (that is, adherents of a view of Islam as supplanting all other faiths and eventually encompassing the entire world), and if only 1% of all Islamists are jihadis (that is, Islamists who believe that Islam must achieve these goals through violent conquest), then there are 130,000,000 Islamists and 1.3 million jihadis. In other words, 0.0001 of the world’s Muslims being jihadis, wanting and trying to kill non-Muslims, is an intolerable problem, even discarding the 130 million Islamists who are supportive of the jihadi cause, but not its methods.

    The remarkable thing is not that so many Westerners have become radicalized themselves since 9/11, but that so few Westerners have become radicalized since 9/11.

  • Tom Strong Link


    Good question – I don’t know. But I can surmise that given the demonstrated willingness of jihadis to use violence, and the number of muslims currently living under dictatorships, rogue states, etc., I wouldn’t expect such protests to just rise up out of the woodwork. At the very least there would have to be a leader, an equivalent of King or Gandhi, willing to risk death and with a genius for organizing.

    I’ll say this, though – if a loud, peaceful, and powerful anti-jihad movement were to swell up among Muslims, it would probably need to start in Europe. And the incompetent way in which European governments have tried to assimilate Muslim immigrants has probably made it very unlikely that such a thing would happen.


    First of all, your figures are off – your first 1% should result in 13 million Islamists, and your second should result in 130,000 jihadis. I’d actually guess the figures to be somewhat higher than that, but not by an order of 10.

    Second, there’s nothing remarkable about the fact that few Westerners have been radicalized since 9/11. It is far from evident that our society is at risk of destruction. Our quality of life has not been changed. And our culture, despite plenty of internal differences, is fairly stable and durable. What is there to radicalize us?

  • Erk – missed a decimal. If you go read Dean’s post that Dave referenced, you will understand what I meant by “radicals” in the West. I was using Dean’s over-the-top characterization.

  • Tom Strong Link

    Oh, okay. I thought you were suggesting we should be more radicalized, or something. My bad.

  • M. Takhallus: It’s not just the decimal that slipped. International security estimates put the total number of jihadis, worldwide, at under 500K; most, in fact put it around 200K. That’s far less than 1% of the Muslim population, or even those who, in some aspects, support militant Islam.

    There is very much a problem in reporting what’s going on in Islamic societies, as Lounsbury points out. I suspect that you’re not reading Arabic language newspapers or watching Arabic TV. Well, neither are the MSM. If they get a tip that something outrageous has happened, they’ll stir themselves to report it, especially if it’s got strong visuals. You know the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads,” I’m sure.

    Go look at even the English language versions, on-line, of Arabic newspapers. Read what the columnists are writing. They’re not writing it as a manifestation of the dread “taqqiya” or disimulation. These are the real arguments going on within their societies. Senior imams, even in Saudi Arabia, are issuing fatwas against terrorism. Imams that are preaching jihad are getting jailed. Even governments categorically repudiate terrorism, no matter the cause. Take a look at the Riyadh Declaration of 2005:

    No matter what pretext terrorists may use for their deeds, terrorism has no justification. Terrorism, under all circumstances, regardless of the alleged motives, should be condemned unconditionally.

    Did you read about that in your local newspaper? Did you see it on the 6:00 or 7:00 news?

    A good part of your complaint needs to be directed at our own media for not covering the full story, preferring to focus on severed heads when they’re not chasing after pretty, but missing, white girls.

  • Fletcher Christian Link


    Sure. Saudi rulers condemn terrorism for the benefit of the useful idiots in the Western media.

    And at the same time, totally forbid any celebration of any other faith, and supply vast amounts of money to Wahabist nutcases.

    They’re talking the talk, but they certainly aren’t walking the walk.

  • kreiz Link

    From a link from QandO, usually critical of the silence of moderate Muslims- Saudi’s interior minister blasts radical Islamists. Hopefully an increasing trend.

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